BUILDING A 21st CENTURY ECONOMY
By Dick Meister
It's the 66th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act, the
Depression-era law that was -- and still is -- essential to the well-being
of working Americans. But hold the applause, please. It's not celebration
that's wanted. It's reform.
Today's working people need a revitalized Labor Relations Act as
desperately as the workers of 1935 needed the original NLRA. The reasons
are many, most of them stemming from the helter-skelter profit-chasing by
greedy corporate employers aided by powerful political leaders.
The NLRA granted the basic, vital right of unionization to yesterday's
workers, who until then had very few rights. That allowed them to bargain
collectively with employers. It was the weapon workers had to have if they
were to improve the miserable pay and working conditions inflicted on them
and escape blatant exploitation.
Union membership grew rapidly after passage of the law and wages and
working conditions improved markedly. As President Franklin Roosevelt and
Congress had anticipated, the living standards of ordinary people rose to
the point that the country at last developed a true middle class.
But though the NLRA worked then, it is not working now. Amendments and
lax enforcement have kept the law from adequately protecting today's
The remedy is obvious: Modify the Labor Relations Act and its
enforcement in order to return the law to its original purpose. Enable the
mass of working people to once more join together in strong and effective
That, however, would decidedly upset many employers and their Republican
Party allies. They've pretty much been having their way, exercising a
virtually unchecked anti-unionism that's been chiefly responsible for
reducing union ranks to less than 15 percent of U.S. workers.
It's become very easy for employers to fire or otherwise penalize and
harass workers who demonstrate pro-union sympathies during organizing
campaigns. And in more than one-third of the instances in which workers
nevertheless vote for union representation, employers avoid negotiating
contracts with their union by challenging the election results or by simply
refusing to negotiate.
What's needed most is to remove the amendments imposed by the
Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. They in effect shifted the intent of the law away
from encouraging unionization by, among other changes, allowing employers to
intervene in organizing campaigns and prohibiting union members from waging
sympathy strikes or otherwise acting in solidarity with other workers.
Deleting those provisions should be merely a first step. Lawmakers also
must prohibit employers from replacing strikers, require them to grant
organizers full access to their workplaces, subject them to much swifter and
much stiffer penalties, and force those who balk at reaching initial
contracts with unions to have the terms decided by an arbitrator.
It would make sense, too, if union recognition was granted simply by
determining whether a majority of an employer's workers had signed up with
the union seeking bargaining rights. That's how it was originally, with no
lengthy election campaigns, no opportunity for employers to intimidate
There's been no lack of legislation to carry out the necessary reforms.
Democratic members of Congress have made sure of that. But Republicans
have blocked the bills, while also pushing measures to weaken the
NLRA even more and further undermine worker rights.
The drive for reform continues nevertheless. It has to. As AFL-CIO
Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka says:
"America can't build a 21st century economy with Model-T labor laws.
America can only have a high-wage, high-skill, high-performance economy when
workers have power, when workers don't have to live in fear of the boss,
when workers can speak their minds, when workers can organize, bargain and
Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor
issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor
and commentator. Copyright c 2001 Dick Meister.